The sun was hot, and none of us were used to hiking such a distance.
“It’s snack time, isn’t it?” she asked.
“We’ve got to conserve food, Halle. We don’t know how long we’ll be out here.”
“What does that mean?” Halle asked.
I held out my hand to her. “It means, we can’t have snacks. Three meals a day—that’s it until we find more food.”
Halle frowned. “But we’ll be with Mom tonight. She can make us something for dinner.”
“We won’t see Mom tonight unless we find a car. It’s a long way on foot.”
“How long?” she asked.
Dad glanced back at me. When I didn’t have an answer, his expression perked up. “Maybe a couple of days, Pop Can. No worries. We’ll get there.”
“A couple of days?” she asked, her tone rising with each word.
I cringed. Dad did, too.
“Sorry, kiddo.” That was all he could offer.
I squeezed her hand. “The more we walk, the closer we get.”
“No snacks?” she whined, her bottom lip pulling up.
At the top of the next hill, for only the third time in as many hours, we stopped.
Tobin pointed. “What’s that?”
“Jesus in Heaven,” Tavia said, dabbing the sweat from her neck and chest.
“Infected,” Dad said. “Maybe ten?”
Tavia held her fingers to her forehead to block out the sun. “They’re too far away. Maybe they’re people?”
Dad pulled his binoculars from his bag and held them up to his eyes. He quickly pulled them back down. “Damn it.”
“What do we do?” Tavia asked.
“We can’t get through them,” Dad said. “All there is between us and them is pasture.”
I looked around. “See any farmhouses or barns?”
Dad used his binoculars and turned in every direction. “Just a pump house. Doesn’t look big enough for all of us to fit.”
“Okay,” Tavia said. “What do we do?”
Dad held out his hands and then let them hit his thighs. “Find a place to hide? Hope they turn in a different direction?”
“You’ve got a scope,” I said. “Use it.”
Dad looked down at his gun. “You just want me to open fire on a bunch of pe—”
“Infected, Dad. You said it yourself. They’re infected. And there are too many of them to handle.”
Dad’s T-shirt was damp with sweat. Still, he used it to wipe his face. His five o’clock shadow was crowding his dry lips.
“Dad?” I said.
“You’ve also got the gun you took off the bridge.”
“I know.” He narrowed his eyes at a row of round hay bales. “Tavia, get the kids on top of those. I’ll climb onto one a little closer and then fall back to you if I have to.”
“That’s your plan?” I asked.
Dad grit his teeth. “Jenna, damn it, would you just do what I say?”
“I know how to shoot a rifle,” I said.
“I said, no! Now, get your ass on that hay!” He pointed with one hand and thrust the binoculars at me with the other.
I frowned as I snatched the binoculars from his hand, and then I led Halle to the field, stepping through freshly cut grass to the round bales.
Gripping his hunting rifle, and with the semiautomatic hanging from his shoulder strap, Dad walked west, toward the group of infected. I helped Halle climb up first, and she helped pull Tobin while Tavia and I pushed. Then, I cupped my hands and helped give Tavia a leg up. It wasn’t perfect, and it took her a couple of tries, but she finally climbed to the top and then reached down for me.
“I’ve got it,” I said.
“You sure, honey?” She watched me climb to the top.
“Yep,” I said, breathless but smiling, as I sat next to her.
My mood didn’t last long. I held the binoculars up to my eyes and located my dad. “He’s picking a round bale. They’re still a ways from him.”
“It’s stucky,” Tobin said, trying to wipe the hay off his hands.
“It’s just for a bit,” Tavia said, pulling him onto her lap and brushing the hay from his clothes.
“He’s getting into position.” I watched Dad lay onto his stomach before he pulled the pin on his rifle. “I hope he remembered to keep his ammo handy.”
Tavia hummed in disapproval. “You sure don’t trust your dad, do ya?”
I lowered the binoculars and looked at her. “He…yeah, he’s smart. But my mom loves this stuff. I just wish she were here. She thinks ahead. Dad thinks about…girls.”
“I bet she doesn’t love it now, and I bet the only girls your dad is thinking about are his own.”
I made a face, embarrassed, and then I put the binoculars back up to my eyes just as Dad took the first shot. “He got one!”
He shot again, and his body jerked with the recoil.
“He got another one!” I let the binoculars fall to my lap. “It’s really loud. It’s going to draw more.”
“We’ll just have to skedaddle before then, won’t we?” Tavia said.
Dad shot several more times. He didn’t even have to fall back. He took down most of them and then hollered at us to climb down.
“C’mon, Halle!” I said after I hopped down. “Jump!”
She leaned over, her hands reaching out for me, and then she fell forward. I barely caught her. I set her feet on the ground and then held out my hands while Tavia lowered Tobin to me.
“Hurry!” I said to Tavia.
She climbed down fairly quickly, and we jogged to the hay bale Dad had shot from, but he was on the other side of the road, diverting the few infected that he couldn’t bring himself to shoot.
“Look away, Halle,” I said.
Tavia shielded Tobin’s eyes as we hurried past, a tiny sob escaping from her throat.
Dad danced around the infected children with various wounds, all three of them younger than me. I only looked long enough to make sure they weren’t following. When I heard three cracks, my shoulders shot up to my ears.
“Did you…” I began.
Dad shook his head, having a hard time with concealing his emotions. “Just made sure they couldn’t keep up. Walk faster.”